The Richness of Languages

Maria-Laetitia Uwimana is well aware of the challenges associated with learning languages: she speaks four of them. For this young immigrant, each language is a key to exploring a cultural universe.

Laetitia grew up all over the world, at the whim of the assignments that her diplomat father received. Born in Rwanda, she spent her early years in Canada. She then lived in Japan and Switzerland. At home, French was spoken along with Kinyarwanda, Rwanda’s national language, and a little English. When the family returned to Rwanda in 1990, Laetitia had to quickly become more proficient in Kinyarwanda in order to continue her studies. “It’s a tonal language, one in which the intonation employed is very important,” she says. “Depending on how you pronounce the word umuryango, for example, it means family or door.”

Soon after their return, civil war broke out in Rwanda. Laetitia’s family had to flee the country in very difficult circumstances and wound up in the Congo, then Togo.

Thanks to being sponsored by relatives already settled in Canada, Laetitia, her husband, and her little girl arrived in Fredericton in November 2005. She knew little about New Brunswick, but she did know it had two linguistic communities. “When I was in Africa,I had heard about Acadia over the airwaves of Radio France Internationale. I found that very interesting, because for me, francophone Canada meant Quebec.”

The young family faced several challenges: housing, work, child care. Laetitia’s husband had to improve his English rapidly in order to find work. As for Laetitia, her command of French and English enabled her to get a job. Shortly after, she was hired by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages for New Brunswick.

The concept of official languages is not totally foreign to Laetitia. Her years in Switzerland had accustomed her to the use of several languages in one country. In her homeland, the official language, French, coexisted with the national language, Kinyarwanda.

Today, Laetitia is an investigator. Her work consists in dealing with the complaints received by the Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. “We gather the facts surrounding the complaint and ask the institution concerned to respond. Once all of the information has been gathered, we analyze it, and the Commissioner makes a decision.”

Despite her job and her children, Laetitia finds the time to attend the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton on a part-time basis. As might be expected, she is very interested in languages. Her studies give her the chance to work on her Spanish.

“I prefer to speak to someone in his or her mother tongue. To people from Latin America, I speak Spanish; to a Rwandan, I speak Kinyarwanda; to an anglophone, English. That builds stronger ties.” She also believes that the use of a person’s mother tongue makes it easier to grasp subtleties of thought. “In my opinion, ideas are best expressed in your mother tongue, and there’s nothing like having someone speak to you in that language.”

At home, her children are learning three languages simultaneously: French, Kinyarwanda, and English. “For me, each language makes you richer,” she stated.